Category Archives: News

Tbilisi Hangout 011 with Mathias Huter

So this week on the Tbilisi Hangout we were had the great opportunity to have Mathias Huter on the show of Transparency International Georgia and TBLPOD fame.

In this episode, we discuss in detail the National Library incident and the poor state of the Georgian government’s “cohabitation” as well as Mathias’ own research into the murky ownership structures of the country’s media and internet service providers. He knows more about that than probably anyone else outside of Georgia’s shadow elite and he tells us why that’s a problem.

Check it out!

Also if you prefer to hear us in better quality or if you’d just as soon not see my face while tuning into the show, we’ll be on GIPA radio 94.3 at 8 p.m. tonight.

Tbilisi Hangout 010

In case you’re not already watching, Georgian journalist, blogger and professor extraordinaire Mirian Jugheli and I have been hosting a weekly show on Google Hangouts that streams live to YouTube every Wednesday at 20:00 Tbilisi time (GMT +4).

If you’re into Georgian and Caucasus news, I strongly recommend you check it out and comment on the page live while we’re going to get involved.

The show is also now broadcast on radio GIPA FM 94.3 in Georgia Thursday nights at the same time. If you miss both times, it’s no big deal, you can watch the show anytime on YouTube. Check it out!

Also, like us on Facebook for reminders when to tune in and for extra links and materials about what we’re talking about each week at this link.

Spies, State Terrorism and Government Credibility

Last weekend I finally got the time to catch up on a number of projects that were hanging over my head, and among the things that I desperately needed to get done was to write a column for the Faster Times on the biggest drama of the summer: photographer spies and terrorist patsies.

Were several freelance photographers secretly spying for the Russian government? Did Russia plant a bomb at the U.S. embassy and other locations? We don’t know, what we do know is that these two much ballyhooed cases have provoked serious questions about the Georgian government’s credibility.

When I first contacted journalists and NGO workers in Georgia about coming to this country in the summer of 2009, most said that it was poor timing.

“Everyone’s on vacation, it’s too hot to work, so, nothing really happens in Georgia in the summer,” they said, “except the occasional war.”

Still that was enough for me to buy the one-way ticket and I am now moving into my third eventful summer in the South Caucasus.

This year, while the Western world was gearing up for barbeques and summer movie blockbusters, Tbilisi was host to a fascinating spy scandal involving three freelance Georgian photographers. Two of them worked directly for the government, including one who was the president’s personal photographer. They were accused of being paid to transmit sensitive government documents – including the minutes of ministerial meetings, blueprints of government buildings, official itineraries, etc. to another country.

Meanwhile, more details emerged about a series of mysterious explosions the previous fall that had rocked Tbilisi – actually “rocked” is a bit of an overstatement. All of the devices were small, causing hardly any damage and no one in Tbilisi seemed to pay much attention to them.

Either way, it has been an interesting, if swelteringly hot, couple of months.

On the explosions, I actually happened to be at the U.S. embassy in Tbilisi to interview the ambassador the day after the strange explosion occurred outside their walls. Although I was there to discuss IDP issues, I asked every aide and employee at the place what they thought it was all about. Most shrugged, figuring it was some local digging for copper, who accidentally struck a natural gas line, or perhaps some sort of odd practical joke. Who knows.  These things happen in Georgia (in March, a Georgian pensioner allegedly cut off the internet for a significant portion of the South Caucasus – including nearly all of Armenia – while scavenging for buried cables).

To continue reading, click here.

South Caucasus internet vulnerable to shut down — accidental or intentional

My most recent article in The Faster Times was intended for another publication, but the unfortunately changed their freelance policy literally hours after I sent it in and it didn’t run.

Be on the lookout for more Faster Times stuff from me, covering protests across the Caucasus.

In recent years, internet security has become an issue of increasing concern for governments around the globe, but in the turbulent South Caucasus, local experts say the threats against both the physical internet infrastructure and cyberattacks against governments and organizations are a reality.

The fragility of the South Caucasus internet infrastructure was underlined this March when a 75-year-old Georgian woman allegedly shut off the internet for 90 percent of Armenia as well as large parts of Georgia and Azerbaijan, by accidentally cutting a fiber-optic cable while digging for copper wire.

Network monitors in Western Europe alerted Georgian authorities to the source of the disruption, and the internet was restored five hours later.

Currently, most internet coverage in the three South Caucasus countries, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, comes from a single fiber optic line that traverses the Black sea into Georgia. From there, the system is neither properly protected, nor properly backed-up said Thomas Van Dam an internet expert who worked with online marketing firm, MatchCraft, in Georgia until 2010.

“There is zero redundancy in the system,” he said. “This is strange because the concept of ’99 percent uptime’ is only possible when you have fully redundant systems.”

Representatives from Georgian Railway Telecom, which owns Georgia’s fiber optic lines, said the company is currently “undergoing reorganization” and were unable to respond to media queries.

To continue reading, click here.

Sharks in the waters of the Georgian casino industry

For more than a decade, Georgia has been virtually the only place in the region to go for (legal) gambling. Unfortunately for the Georgian casino industry, that’s about to change. But not all change is bad, and although the industry faces new threats, new opportunities are also beginning to emerge.

When I wasn’t running around Abkhazia or teaching English over the last couple of months, I have been looking into this trend for Investor.ge.

Georgia has seen few industries boom in the   years since its independence like the casino industry. While neighboring countries banned or tightly limited gambling throughout the 1990’s, Georgia allowed it to flourish; as a result there are more than 500 slot clubs currently operating in Tbilisi. But the gambling business is now facing new threats. In the last several years, Georgian casinos have increasingly been the target of proposed tax legislation as the government vied for a bigger slice of the industry’s traditionally murky profit pie. Furthermore, although Georgia once occupied the title of the Las Vegas of the region, it is no longer the only game in town.

In Azerbaijan gambling has been illegal since 1998; however, as of January this year state-run gambling houses are now allowed to operate. In the same month Armenia issued licenses to dozens of gambling organizations, which, once relegated to the outskirts of Yerevan, are now working their way into the city.

But Vedran Bajat, General Manager of Casino Adjara, said that he has been closely watching these changes in the market and in his opinion they will not have a significant impact on the Georgian casino business.

Despite the fact that a steady stream of Armenian and Azeri thrill-seekers has traditionally been a boon for the Georgian casinos, Bajat estimated that Casino Adjara, which attracts an average of 1,000 players per day, has a clientele that is 90 percent local. In addition, he pointed out that Azerbaijan has only legalized sports betting and lotteries, so Azeri crapshooters and card-players will still have to make the trip west to Tbilisi or Batumi to get their fill.

Still, the increased competition, high taxes and a steep 5 million GEL ($3 million) annual licensing fee for casinos seems to have made it difficult to break into the market. Currently, only two casinos operate in Tbilisi: Casino Adjara and Iveria Casino. A third, Grand Sakartvelo closed recently.

To continue reading, click here.

“Turkish Investment and Trade Booms in Abkhazia” – Tabula magazine

Turkish sailors in Sokhumi beside their ships adorned with both Turkish and Abkhazian flags in February 2011.

Anyone who has been following my writing on Abkhazia over the past couple of months, will not be too surprised by the conclusions of my piece published in the English edition of Tabula magazine yesterday. In it, I talk to one of the very few analysts who have dug deep into Turkey’s quietly deepening trade ties with Abkhazia, Argun Baskan, a researcher with the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey.

Although Georgia continues to officially maintain an embargo on the breakaway republic of Abkhazia, experts and local observers now believe that the Georgian Coast Guard may have backed off enforcing the embargo and is no longer seizing Turkish ships bound for Abkhazian ports.

Abkhazia has been under an official blockade and a ban on all economic activity imposed by the Commonwealth of Independent States since 1996. Although Russia began progressively lifting economic sanctions on Abkhazia in 2000, causing land trade to increase, Georgian navy patrols continued to make sea trade with Abkhazia sparse and treacherous.

More than 60 ships were reportedly captured by the Georgian navy between 1999-2009. Often times the ships were later auctioned off and their crews briefly imprisoned. But, Argun Baskan, a researcher with the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey said that since Russia recognized Abkhazia as independent in 2008, economic and cultural ties between Turkey and Abkhazia have greatly increased.

Baskan, who co-authored a report on the issue in December 2009 entitled “Abkhazia for the Integration of the Black Sea,” said that the Abkhaz diaspora community in Turkey, numbering about 500,000 people, has been very active in lobbying Ankara for a restoration of transit links and deeper economic and political ties with Abkhazia.

To continue reading, click here.

Return to Abkhazia: Day 4 – Turks, trade and terrorists

So part IV of my “Return to Abkhazia” series finally ran at the Faster Times, and it’s already gotten me thinking about an epilogue. In fact, I kinda like tis style of writing. Maybe I should just ditch this journalism nonsense for the much more stable profession of book-writing …

Russian Coast Guard sailors in Sokhumi practice firing flares in April 2010.

On my second full day in Sokhumi, I wanted to focus less on the political opposition, which dominated my first day in the de facto capital, and more on the increasing Turkish trade and investment in Abkhazia.

So, I wandered down to Sokhumi’s main pier past the crowded tables of old men smoking, drinking Turkish coffee and feverishly playing Backgammon and dominos to the docks. The one fully functional pier in Sokhumi is a microcosm of the city itself. Parts of it have rotted and rusted away, left as is. A few fishermen sat alone drinking beer and casting their lines on the sturdier sections, and some workers were trying to weld together a makeshift set of stairs at one of the loading areas – I guess the previous jury-rigged steps had broken. At the end of the 200 ft pier sat a swanky two-story open air sushi bar and lounge called “Apra.”

In the summer, Apra is definitely the place to be if you don’t mind shelling out executive prices. In the warmer months they open the windows and let the sea breeze blow through the billowy white curtains that envelop the main eating area. What’s more, the sushi is actually the best I’ve ever had in this part of the world. This time, however, sushi and scotch were not in the cards. I had come to write for a couple of Georgian magazines, so I didn’t have the budget to treat myself.

Standing around, I furtively snapped some photos of the ships that had come into harbor – all of them Turkish. In between photos of their crews and masts bearing the Abkhazian and Turkish flags, I took some shots of the sea, of the restaurant, of my shoes – whatever to make myself look less like a spy.

Over the two days I had seen four ships in Sokhumi – three fishing boats and one container ship that had been unloading something all day. This was far more than I had seen in previous visits, and Akhra Smyr, the political analyst I had talked to the night before, said that their presence had boomed since late 2009. That fact was quite interesting, because that meant that this sudden increase followed two key international incidents, which likely encouraged the Georgian Coast Guard to halt the enforcement of their blockade on all trade and economic activity with Abkhazia.

Although the Georgian government has never publicly acknowledged ceasing to enforce the embargo (they specifically refused to comment to me on this issue), every sign pointed to the conclusion that they had. After Georgia seized a tanker ship in August 2009 with 2,800 tons of fuel and 17 Turkish crewmembers, Turkey’s previously neutral official position on the blockade-running activities of its citizens began to harden. When the ship’s captain was sentenced to 24 years in prison for violating the blockade, Ankara sprung into action to defend its own. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu promptly flew to Tbilisi, and five days after the conviction, the captain was released. Simultaneously, Russia declared that its coast guard vessels would be patrolling de facto Abkhaz waters and would fire on any Georgian ship attempting to interfere with Abkhazia’s maritime commerce.

Thus, by late 2009, the blockade had failed on the two most important fronts. First, Georgia had not only failed to convince Turkey to participate in the embargo, but by overreaching in its punishment of the tanker crew it had provoked Turkey to actively push for protecting Turkish ships that chose to take the risks of illicit trade. Secondly, with Russia involved, Georgia simply could not afford to continue chasing trade ships in de facto Abkhazian waters – Georgia’s two largest naval vessels were destroyed in the 2008 war, and thus the Georgian Coast Guard’s remaining patrol boats would be extremely exposed, risking firefights with ships from Russia’s Black Sea fleet. And, in the end, hampering Abkhazia’s economic development was simply not worth the chance of igniting another conflict with Russia. Continue reading

News and other stuff you should be reading (when you’re not reading Three Kings)

Remember that country we created? – First of all, Global Post has been virtually the only news organization that has taken a seriously look at the fact that the United States continues to support the Kosovo government, which, as recent allegations allege, is led by mafiosos who are managing drug, internal organ and sex trafficking on the side. I have made my thoughts on this overlooked scandal quite clear in several posts (click here for Three Kings’ past Kosovo coverage). Global Post has done great work pulling together the facts in a three-part series called “Kosovo’s ‘Mafia.’” Everyone should check it out.

Femen protesters in a demonstration against "all forms of patriarchy."

Flashing for feminism – Elsewhere, my friend, Emily Channell, has a very interesting post at Facile Gestures Blog (which you should all be reading as well) about Femen, a fascinating organization of feminist activists in Ukraine. Rightly or wrongly, Femen is most well known for their topless protests in public places. While focusing on that particular tactic belies some of the overarching points Femen is making, it brings about an interesting discussion. By making their bodies — both the subject of objectification by men and submission by the state — into the vehicle for their protest are they successfully appropriating their sexuality and subverting the perversion of the masculine state? Or, as others argue, are they continuing their subordination and objectification through this method and giving the world “a lasting picture what a Ukrainian girl is: beautiful, slim and ready to undress as soon as a camera is pointed at her”? Give it a read.
When diplomats keep it real – And finally, back to Georgia. Last week offered one of the unfortunately rare examples of foreign diplomats in Georgia taking on the role of public truth-sayers. First, French Ambassador to Georgia — and fabulous saxophone player — Eric Furnier slammed the Georgian government in a public forum for failing grasp and implement the EU’s policy suggestions. The CE News Blog had a rough translation:

“It seems like all the efforts of the European Union have been like pouring water in the sand, that we are making absolutely no progress, and that the European Neighbourhood Policy is maybe empty or not European at all, because, what is left of the European values in what we heard? Almost nothing. Lack of freedom of media, total contempt for labour and trade unions, lack of progress in economy. It’s a disaster.”

“I’m afraid after hearing you, I have the impression of getting a description of a neo-bolshevik state with absolutely no freedom. And when I heard that there is now young people for stealing 8 [Georgia lari’s worth of] goods, throw them into jail, it is absolutely scary. [...]”

“[...] So I think it’s about time we maybe organise more seminars of this kind, but maybe putting on the table concrete steps to change the situation. Because what you have just been telling us is – I’m sorry – very depressing for any European citizen. Thank you”

In the middle he was making reference to the story of a teenager in Gori who was thrown in jail after stealing a box of pens. Apparently he was offered to pay an exorbitant restitution amounting to thousands of lari, instead got locked up for several years.
Following on Furnier’s tirade, Hansjörg Haber, head of the EU Monitoring Mission in Georgia (EUMM) — a notoriously quiet and passive bunch — dished out some tough truth at the NATO Parliamentary Assembly’s Rose-Roth Seminar in Tbilisi on March 23. He said the peace process with Russia was “not progressing.” He also agreed that Russia had in the past used Abkhazia and South Ossetia to leverage Tbilisi for more influence, and therefore, Moscow lost what cards it had once it recognized them as independent. Now, the Russians “are at a loss how to re-establish their influence over Georgia,” and so far their approach is “not very imaginative.”

But, Georgia’s policy isn’t much better, he said.

“Basically it consists of using international leverage to demonstrate the continued character of the principle of territorial integrity, which of course we all support and therefore additional confirmations of the principle of territorial integrity tend to demonstrate the principle of diminishing returns,” Haber said. [...]

He cited an example of Georgia’s demand in respect of Russia’s WTO bid, wherein Tbilisi in exchange of its consent for Russia’s WTO entry wants to have some sort of control over the trade at the Abkhaz and South Ossetian sections of the Georgian-Russian border.

“Legally this is certainly justified demand,” Haber said, but added that even if this demand would materialize “what is going to change in terms of ultimate Georgian objective of reintegration of Abkhazia and South Ossetia?”

“I do not see any contribution towards this national goal”.

“So there is really question of whether Georgia wants to win diplomatic battles to underscore again the principle of territorial integrity or whether it wants to promote reintegration,” he added.

After his speech, Giorgi Kandelaki, an MP on the foreign relations committee, spoke and defended the push for customs agents as it would add a “political dynamic” to the issue. But that is exactly what many European diplomats have told me is the problem. Rather than moving towards resolution, Tbilisi remains committed to politicizing and polarizing the peace talks with Abkhazia and South Ossetia in pursuit of small, short-sighted victories.

Haber wasn’t finished. He also argued, like me, that the Georgian government needs to engage directly with Sokhumi and Tskhinvali.

In this context he said that the Georgian authorities’ treatment of Sokhumi and Tskhinvali as mere Russian puppets was further pushing the two regions “deeper into Russia” and such approach was not advancing the cause of reintegration.

He also spoke of “notable differences” between Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

“South Ossetian diplomacy,” he said, “is angry; it’s passionate; it’s exaggerating, but they are still closer to Georgia.”

“Abkhazia is different – they are more moderate, but… they are completely cold with respect to Georgia,” Haber said.

He also said that both Abkhazia and South Ossetia “need strong gestures from Georgia to consider alternatives to the present relationship with Russia.”

It’s a shame these sorts of signals are only sent to the Georgian government publicly when they are coming from the mouths of delegates on their way out of the country.

Just for fun – Not to pile on or anything, but in another healthy sign of political competition from Georgia’s rowdy opposition, two major opposition figures got into a brawl in the Munich airport. Like a lot of things in Georgian politics, you just can’t make this stuff up.

East Timor a model for Georgia? … for Abkhazia and South Ossetia?

Courtesy of wikipedia commons

I’ve been pondering models for peaceful ways forward in normalizing the Russian-Georgian relationship lately and also for the gradual and long-term resolution with Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Most EU people I talk to look at Northern Cyprus as the correct model for engagement and resolution of Georgia’s breakaway territories. While I certainly like what has been done there more than here, it is necessary to point out that the Cyprus situation is in fact, still unresolved after nearly 30 years.

East Timor, or Timor Leste, is another interesting situation. East Timor announced this week that it is interested in increasing its military cooperation with Indonesia, buying patrol boats for $40 million — on loan — and said it hopes to establish military education ties.

Normally, a deal of this size would hardly be noticeable, it’s only interesting because of who is involved. Indonesia brutally occupied East Timor between 1975 and 1999. It is estimated that the occupation cost between 100,000-183,000 Timorese lives — out of a population of less than 700,000. East Timor became officially independent in 2002, and needless to say, there has been no love lost with its former occupier.

Thus, with ties seeming to improve and bilateral cooperation increasing, the two countries represent a good example of how nations with bloody histories can move on peacefully. Frankly, I don’t know enough about Indonesia to compare it to Russia and say definitively whether this example is transferrable at all, but the headline nonetheless left me thinking, “Wouldn’t it be nice if Georgia and Russia could have normal regional collaborative relationships rather than stockpiling weapon systems and warships to fight one another?”

Like East Timor and Indonesia, Georgia, Russia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia have plenty of ugly baggage, but they also have common interests and all would be better off if their respective governments could stop politicizing their situations and get down to real business. I guess this is just my hippy post of the week — you can’t hug with firearms … unless you’re making them together!

Azerbaijan’s “Day of Rage”: police respond with rage of their own

I have been following the March 11 day of rage would-be protest in Azerbaijan all day through twitter, and the periodic updates from Radio Free Europe.

Unfortunately, it unfolded nearly exactly as everyone expected.

by Abbas Atilay, courtesy of Radio Free Europe, rferl.org

Even before the March 11 arrived, Azerbaijani authorities arrested a number of youth activists involved in the posting of a facebook group dedicated to organizing the protests and some it simply suspected of future complicity. A public campaign on national television showed psychologists describing facebook users as mentally damaged, influenced by foreign agents, or simply “mostly Armenians.”

On March 7, the Washington-backed National Democratic Institute in Azerbaijan was told it would be closed. NDI primarily promotes strengthening democratic institutions and transparent, competitive political processes.

By the time March 11 finally rolled around the police clearly had a plan. They placed police around Baku State University, blocked down the May 28 metro station, and began arresting other known activists around town — including two who were sitting at a cafe at the time.

As various small protests began, dozens of protestors were arrested, but were later released, probably because the police wanted to maintain the manpower to break up any other protests to come. The only serious violence that occurred seemed to target journalists. Several journalists were arrested and Abbas Atilay (author of the photo above) was beaten by several policemen in the body and face before a police captain broke up the scuffle and apologized. He apparently then cleaned the blood from his face and continued working.

Although my heart goes out 100 percent to the victims of today’s tsunami in Japan, it is an additional tragedy that their disaster will totally block coverage of these important events in Azerbaijan.

Keep tuned in, I plan to continue to update this as the events progress and we move into Musavat’s planned protest tomorrow.